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Saturday, April 19, 2014

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Discover Catalonia’s Jewish heritage

Tags: Travel
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The bridge leading into the charming village of Besalu, north of Barcelona

Barcelona’s allure is usually associated with its strong affinity for fiestas, siestas, tapas and the Mediterranean lifestyle. It’s also known for its gorgeous architecture and “Moderniste” movement, which was led by the famous, Antoni Gaudí and his contemporaries during the end of the 19th century. What visitors sometimes don’t realize, however, is that it’s also a city with a rich and elaborate connection to Judaism and Jewish culture.

Although today the city currently has a population of approximately 5,000 Jews, centuries ago it was one of the world’s largest and most prosperous Jewish communities. The 12th and 13th centuries were considered the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry and Jews comprised a mainly affluent, 15 to 20 per cent of the population. To give it some perspective, modern-day North America is approximately 2 per cent Jewish, and Barcelona today is less than .01 per cent. Medieval Jews were extremely successful and held occupations mainly as skilled labourers, doctors, advisors to the royal court, and money-lenders (a profession that was off limits to Catholics and Muslims at the time) providing their services to all levels of society, including the kings and queens to finance their wars and conquests.

Everything changed however, when in the 15th century, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s Inquisition called for the expulsion of all Jews from Spain. As a result, it’s hard to find a lot of tangible evidence of a Jewish existence in the country today.

That being said, if you know where to go and how to explore there are various historic sites and small towns that shed light onto Barcelona’s Jewish past. 

For those traveling to Catalonia and seeking Jewish tourism, visit the ‘Calls.’ This is the name for the historic Jewish quarters in Barcelona, Girona, Besalu, and various other towns and villages throughout the region. Some of Catalonia’s significant Jewish landmarks, which have been discovered in recent decades, include the ruins of Barcelona’s ancient synagogue, (which claims to be the oldest in Europe), and Spain’s only fully-preserved medieval mikvah, located in the charming village of Besalu (one and a half hours north of Barcelona by car).

The historic town of Girona is another quaint day trip from Barcelona and was once home to the great Talmudic scholar Nahmanides, or “Ramban,” who in the year 1263 appeared before the king to publicly defend the tenets of Judaism. In Girona, you can stroll through what’s left of its Call and visit the Museum of Jewish History, the only one of its kind in Spain, which also houses an important research centre and library.

Although Catalonia’s Jewish heritage can be uncovered on one’s own, the best way to really delve into this part of history is with an expert guide. For those looking to gain a full appreciation for the region’s Jewish past, a knowledgeable guide can help discover hidden pearls, many of which are not obvious to the typical traveler and are concealed amongst narrow alleyways and tiny courtyards, not easily found on city maps.

For example, the Call in Barcelona has Hebrew inscriptions on some of the buildings, built with refashioned headstones from abandoned Jewish cemeteries. But they’re extremely hard to find, especially if you don’t even know where to look. It’s also beneficial to hire a private car with your guide, if you’re doing a day trip, as towns like Besalu aren’t easily accessible by bus.

Some touring companies offer Jewish tours and day trips that include both Girona and Besalu, which is a very comprehensive and well rounded way to get a genuine feel for Jewish history and culture in the region.

Although there is still a very small Jewish presence in Barcelona today, it is slowly starting to revive. In the past few years the city went from having no kosher restaurants to now having three and there is a general feel that the city seems to be making subtle efforts to revitalize its long-forgotten Jewish past. There’s also a growing number of modern-day ‘Barcelonesos’ converting to Judaism after investigating only to discover their own Sephardic roots. All of this is complemented by a gradual influx of Jews from abroad who can now choose to attend services in any of four active synagogues within the city.

Through both tourism and locals’ efforts to revive the city’s Jewish presence, Judaism today is being promoted in a way like it has never been before. It’s looking like it will only continue to become more popular, so it’s definitely worth a visit before the hidden gems of the past aren’t so secretive anymore.

Sam Mednick and Jordan Susselman are North American Jews who run Hi. This is Barcelona, a private tour company specifically catered toward Jews. They particularly tailor the experiences for those looking to gain an in-depth experience into the region’s history.  www.hithisisbarcelona.com

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